OAKLAND, Calif. — As I rode the BART train from San Francisco to Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery to meet artist Lindsay Tunkl, I wouldn’t say I was feeling dread — but I wasn’t looking forward to delving into my feelings about death and loss, either. Tunkl’s performance series, Parting Practice: Rituals for Endings and Failure, invites participants to do just what the title states: practice parting from ambitions, hopes, possessions, friends, family, and your life (with a little haunting thrown in).
I was intrigued, though. I liked Tunkl’s recent book, When You Die You Will Not Be Scared To Die, which uses humor to reframe death as a release rather than an inevitability to struggle against. For instance, she writes:
When you die you will be whole
When you die you will not care about getting likes
When you die you will stop fearing the unknown
When you will have everything you need
Tunkl, who also created a Pre Apocalypse Co-Counseling Handbook and Origins & Endings, a divination book and card deck, says she wanted to respond to the fear, anxiety, and depression people feel in relation to death. With the world seemingly lurching toward fascism and environmental disaster, she decided to give people an opportunity to examine their fears.
When I arrived at the cemetery’s entrance, Tunkl drove me up to a higher spot near a small lake. She laid out a small, circular rug to sit on and took out a boom box.
With a non-judgmental and welcoming demeanor, she explained that this was my session and it was OK to stop it at any time — although, she added, no one had done so yet. She listened to me with curiosity and interest as I talked about almost drowning as a kid, my grandparents’ deaths, and the recent death of my mother-in-law, gently coaxing me to go deeper. This led to wide-ranging conversation, covering not just our eventual demises but also joy, gratitude, and being present in life.
Part of our session centered on questions about death. Tunkl asked, had I ever had a near-death experience? Had I experienced a recent loss? What are my memories of death? Do I identify as someone afraid to die? What would be my ideal way to die? The questions were followed by a guided meditation in which she asked me to examine some truths about death, including its certainty, how life is constantly running out, that death will come whether or not we are prepared, and the vulnerability of the body. Being in a cemetery, surrounded by death, made everything less abstract.
After several minutes, Tunkl draped a sheet over me and had me imagine myself as a ghost. What would I do? How was I feeling? I didn’t realize I was smiling until I took the sheet off and she told me. “Whenever people come out of the ghost they always have really big smiles on their faces,” she said.
A friend of mine worked for years as a chaplain at a hospital. She said people who were surrounded by family members telling them that everything would be all right, that they looked fine when they didn’t, felt relief when she sat with them, held their hands, and said, “So, you’re going to die.” I imagine that it feels something like my Parting Practice session with Tunkl. We all want to be seen, and having someone acknowledge your eventual death is a way of being seen. Surprisingly, it is a relief. Someday you will be dead. You will be free of your stuff, both physically and psychologically.
For many people, death is both tragic and absurd. It’s certainly absurd to be in a cemetery, standing under a tree with a sheet over your head. And thinking about people you have lost and will lose, deaths that came too soon or in horrible circumstances, can feel tragic. But acknowledging the inevitable fact of death, examining how we feel about it when we’re not in the midst of grief or loss, is liberating.